An angry mob gathered around a train station, passing out photocopied
flyers and shouting protests against an unjust company. Scrappy stickers
were slapped on billboards, directing passers-by to a crudely designed
website. The company they were railing against was a frequent target of
grassroots activism: Nike. And the group running this guerilla-style
anti-advertising campaign? None other than Nike itself.
It's been over a decade since Nike's beloved swoosh first came under
attack by labor activists. Organizations like Adbusters, Global Exchange
and NikeWatch have waged high profile campaigns to make that curving
icon associated with slave labor as firmly as with Michael Jordon. Activists
have manipulated logos, performed street theater and marred billboards in order to "jam" the Nike brand.
Nike's recent soccer ads in Australia, however, have appropriated both the
techniques and the language used against them. The campaign involved posting billboards that boasted "The Most Offensive Boots We've Ever Made," pseudo-marring them with stickers that read "Not Fair Mr. Technology," and even creating a fake grassroots protest group called Fans Fighting for Fairer Football (F.F.F.F). Although this fuzzy people-power group had "banded together for a single cause that they believed was fair and just," they were not activists fighting for fair working conditions; these were "actorvists" arguing that Nike shoes gave their wearers an unfair advantage.
How clever! How hip! That Nike, they sure can co-opt their critics with
"It took hard work to link the words 'Nike' and 'sweatshop' in the public
mind," says Kalle Lasn, director of Adbusters. But now, he says, "without
significantly changing its labor practices, Nike gets a chance to mock its
critics, with the public laughing along."
Though Nike may pass their latest stunt off lightly -- like it is, to quote their
other advertising campaign, "just play" (tee-hee, you're it!) -- this is no game of tag. Instead, it's another chapter in the age-old story of corporate marketers co-opting a cultural movement. But this is commodification with a twist -- because, essentially, Nike is trying to capitalize on the anti-capitalism movement.
Anarchy, after all, is sooo in. Black Bloc protesters strut their stuff on the
nightly news, with their drums, explosions, and black hoods framing
attractive, twenty-something faces -- hell, it's better than MTV and reality
television put together! And you couldn't ask for better demographics.
Demonstrations in Seattle, Quebec and most recently Genoa have been a hit
with the 18 to 35 year olds; the audience the police are shooting at is
precisely the one corporate advertisers are shooting for.
While extreme in its co-optation of protesting techniques, Nike is hardly the
only company jumping on the anti-corporate bandwagon. Apple, IBM and
the Gap have all played with protest-chic. Apple has imposed their "Think
Different" slogan onto billboards of Cesar Chavez, Malcolm X, and -- most
recently -- young, red-flag waving militants. The Gap has seized on the
graffiti aesthetic by dressing their windows in fake black spray paint that
alongside their sweatshop-produced low-riding jeans.
Meanwhile, IBM has made a more literal move to the streets. Their recent
Linux campaign involved spraying stencils of Peace, Love and the Linux
Penguin logo on city sidewalks. They have gotten flak for their graffiti --
Chicago fined them several thousand dollars and San Francisco officials
decried it as vandalism -- but that can only reinforce their hip,
anti-establishment image. It's only a matter of time before Old Navy begins
peddling gas mask patterned handkerchiefs (you've got to get this look!)
and the Home Shopping Network makes the Black Bloc's monochromatic
look available to you, 24 hours a day, in your choice of ebony, sable or
An exaggeration? Perhaps, but not without precedent. The corporate
machine has proved itself capable of folding the prickliest of cultures
into its embrace. Punk. Afro-centricism. Civil Rights. Virginia Slims straddled the
Cosmo crowd while it spouted the feminist slogan "You've come a long
way, baby." Benetton appropriated anti-racist imagery to hippify its brand
and the Pillsbury Dough Boy rapped, proving even biscuits can benefit from
hip-hop's trendiness. Companies continuinally pan a movement, commodify
its cool, strip its substance and use it to enhance their own logo.
Nike & Co. would like to think the current protest movement's
anti-corporate bent is but a pesky inconvenience. But co-opting this dissent
may be bit more difficult because, in part, it's a reaction to the very
commodification past political movements have fallen victim to. Naomi Klein, author of the anti-corporate manifesto "No Logo," sees this generation of activists as different. "Although this is what companies have
always done -- they've sought out the edge, they've marketed it and sold it
back, they've done it with feminism and anti-establishment agendas -- I think
there's something fundamentally different about an anti-corporate movement
that's reacting so strongly against that very impulse to co-opt."
When Nike did run its pseudo-protest, it took no time for the real activists
to fight back. Activists jammed the mock-jammed billboards with phrases
like "$1.25 per day wages: 'Not Fair' Mr. Nike" and "100% Slave Labour."
Rallies were held outside Nike stores and the Melbourne megastore had to be boarded up. Two days after the F.F.F.F. website was mentioned in the mainstream news, it was taken down. Nikesweatshop.net claimed victory
by saying: "Bad layout and Impact font belong to the activist community again (for now...)"
Could activists of generations past have claimed such a swift victory? The
added advantage protesters have in today's game is that both parties know
the rules. Activists are more media savvy and will fight just as fiercely to
hold on to their own signature methods as they do to attack their enemies'
tactics. They also know the power of the brand -- the sancitity of the
almighty icon -- and how to hit back where it hurts. While Genoa protestors
might not be effective in overturning the World Bank and the G-8, they are
having a real effect on many youths' perceptions of corporate conglomerates
as less than cool. For all of Nike's attempts to laugh it off, there is a
rising mass of people who think of the swoosh like animal rights activists think of
fur: it's garnered at the expense of others.
This, of course, makes the corporate efforts to co-opt them all the more
desperate. Anti-brand chic may be more difficult to appropriate, but that
does not mean Nike and the Gap and Apple and IBM will stop trying. Not
simply because its cool and hip and their models look good in black. They
will try because this movement poses a genuine threat to their omnipotent
brand imaging. They simply can't afford to have their shoes, clothing and
computers associated with the truth of cheap labor, false advertising and
So instead, they'll continue to try to belittle the movement, mock it, copy
it, appropriate it and spit it out in a way so people cannot recognize -- or
forget -- the underlying critique. The activists, in turn, will continue to
adapt because the clock keeps running, even if the game changes form. Adbusters
goes glossy, Nike goes grunge. A corporation appropriates, a subculture
morphs and a new critique arises.
The truth is, Nike was well aware that their "Offensive" campaign would
offend. As Lasn points out, "They were counting on it. And now they're
back in the spotlight on their own terms." But the protestors were already
set to grab it back. Because they know this is more than a game of tag; it's a
tug of war. So when it does come down to branding, jamming and name
calling, the activists will try to hit the bullies with slams that stick.
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